Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen is a music legend, but he is also a hoarder. He must be- there is no other explanation for the quantity and variety of memorabilia that he has saved from his career in music. And it has been assembled with loving care and attention to detail in an exhibit called “Rick’s Picks- a Lifelong Affair with Guitars and Music” at the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Nielsen’s hometown of Rockford. This was the final weekend in a nine month run. I can’t believe we almost missed it. It was amazing.
There are set lists, posters and even a live recording, and that’s just from his very first band. There are passports, boarding passes, itineraries from world tours. Fancy shoes, shiny suits, very well-worn hats, and a whole wall of his famous sweaters, including a note from his sweater maker apologizing for the delay in getting him his new “jumper.” There’s fan art, most of it portraits of Rick or little stuffed Nielsens, and fan letters, many of which begin “I am a fourteen year old girl from Japan...” There’s a whole case of guitar picks, which probably doesn’t even equal what he throws into the audience in the course of a show. There’s a report card, a list of his detentions and a letter from the State of Illinois explaining why his license had been revoked (driving on the sidewalk was one of the offenses). There’s a 1940 something Thunderbird parked in the entryway to the exhibit, right next to his black and white checkered John Deere tractor.
And then there are the guitars. There are the oddities, the Uncle Dick, a two neck guitar painted to look like Nielsen, and the Little Dick, modeled after his caricature from the album Rockford. There are the rarities, the Merle Travis $1,000,000 guitar of which only three were ever made, and a guitar played by both Nielsen and John Lennon. Nielsen brought it along for the recording of the Double Fantasy record and left it with Lennon. Yoko Ono mailed it back after John’s death. There was a gorgeous green acoustic with checkerboard inlays in the neck. And then there were the iconic guitars, the ones custom made for him by Hamer. Like the checkerboard guitar modeled after the Gibson Explorer, and created by painting it one color, applying tiny tape squares, and then painting the other color, peeling all the tiny squares off at the end. The guy who did the painstaking work said he would do it “a thousand more times, well, maybe not a thousand, but at least ten.”
Guitars like the one he lent to Lennon, his very recognizable checkerboard guitar, and his signature axe, the ridiculous five neck (which weighs forty pounds) had video accompanying them. The videos featured interviews with the designers at Hamer, plus a guitar collector who helped Nielsen find some of his rarest pieces, and fellow musicians who couldn’t stop saying great things about Nielsen. The forty minute film featured in the small theater had even more of the above. I was especially delighted to see Jon Langford (who had designed a poster for the event) and Chuck Prophet featured prominently. It was hard to keep from saying “he’s been in my basement… and he will be!”
There aren’t any plans to yet, but I hope they take this exhibit on the road. It’s one of the most comprehensive and thoroughly enjoyable exhibits I’ve seen. Plus, it totally rocks!
I wish I would have taken more pictures.